- Elegant, stylish exterior
- Modern, attractive interior
- Ample features, great optional extras
- Predictive all-wheel drive system
- Impressive performance and handling for the segment
- No manual transmission option
- Rear seat is very compact
- Styling may not age well
- Monochrome gauges look cheap
The 2016 Mazda CX-3 is stylish, well-equipped, and one of the most fun-to-drive vehicles in its segment.
U.S. car buyers have never before bought as many SUVs and crossover utility vehicles as they're taking home today. Now a growing segment of even smaller entries is offering new options, including the Mazda CX-3. It's the smallest crossover sold by the sporty Japanese brand, slotting neatly below the CX-5 compact SUV.
The 2016 CX-3 looks racy, handles well, and offers a compelling alternative to the Chevrolet Trax, Honda HR-V, and Jeep Renegade that have surged onto the market over the last year.
Through an alternate lens, you can view the new CX-3 as the capacious hatchback that the Mazda 3 doesn't offer. While we love Mazda's compact cars, they're hardly capable of holding four adults. The CX-3 remedies that problem, and adds optional all-wheel drive to boot. Given continuing cheap gas prices and the rising fuel efficiency of SUVs of all sizes, we suspect the CX-3 will do very well. Its sales may be closer to those of the Fiat 500X or the Mini Countryman than Honda's high-volume HR-V, but it's reasonably priced and much more capable for the usual tasks of hauling people and a whole lot of stuff. And it's fun to drive—which can't be said of the Honda or the Chevy.
The CX-3 shines on first impression. The exterior design is one of the most impressive, cohesive renderings of the company's Kodo design theme yet. Only the latest MX-5 Miata wears the sinewy curves and taut lines better. From any angle, the CX-3 is an attractive vehicle, offering an elegant, up-market feel with a clear intention for sporty behavior on its sleeve.
Inside, it’s more of the same. Like all of Mazda’s recent vehicles, the interior of the CX-3 is remarkably upscale in appearance. Sure, there are still plenty of hard plastics in the cabin, but there are also premium elements like wrapped dashboard pieces, highlight piping on the seats, contrast stitching, and controls and buttons with a solid and substantial feel. Overall, the interior look and quality look far pricier than a base price around $21,000 might lead you to expect.
Looks are one thing, but utility vehicles are primarily about capability, performance, and comfort. The 2016 CX-3 doesn’t shirk this burden. We found it one of the most enjoyable cars to drive among all the new small crossover utilities. Mazda's electric power steering is well-weighted, and steering geometry tweaks like extra caster improve its straight-line stability without compromising maneuverability. And the CX-3 is highly maneuverable; its 34.8-foot turning circle is low for a front-drive (or all-wheel-drive) vehicle.
Comfort isn't affected by the sporty driving capability, in large part. In fact, the 2016 CX-3 is surprisingly quiet and comfortable even on poor road surfaces, soaking up most bumps without upsetting the occupants—although wheel choice matters. After spending several hundred miles in the CX-3, we can confidently say it’s a very comfortable place to be, even for extended periods. The seats are supportive but supple, and road noise is very low, especially with the base Sport trim’s standard 16-inch alloy wheels and taller tires. The 18-inch wheels and lower-profile tires on the Touring and Grand Touring models improve steering feel a tick, but at the cost of a bit more road noise, especially over rough surfaces, and they also bring a bit more stiffness to the overall ride. Still, it’s not intrusive in either case.
The CX-3 comes with a single powetrain—a 146-horsepower 2.0-liter inline-4 with a 6-speed automatic transmission—and a choice of standard front-wheel drive or optional all-wheel drive. Both engine and transmission are products of Mazda's SkyActiv engineering, meaning that every component of an otherwise standard powertrain is optimized for fuel economy. The cars are then designed around the engine and its large exhaust-header system, which is why the engine compartment is longer than in other vehicles. But as with other Mazda models, SkyActiv pays off not only in higher ratings, but in real-world figures that meet and often beat the EPA numbers.
Neither the NHTSA nor the IIHS has provided crash-test data for the 2016 CX-3.
In terms of features, there’s a high level of standard equipment, especially considering the price, and a satisfying range of upgrades are available, including some higher-tech safety items. The base six-speed manual, front-wheel-drive model starts around $20,000, as do base models of its competitors. A fully optioned CX-3 can easily get you to $30,000 however.
Final ratings are 29 mpg city, 35 highway, 31 combined for the front-wheel-drive model, and 27/32/29 mpg for the all-wheel-drive version. Both of those results put the CX-3 at or near the top of its burgeoning class. The CX-3’s light weight plays an important role in acquiring these gas mileage figures with a conventional gasoline four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission.